A powerful new documentary offers an unvarnished portrait of residents and police in Baltimore working to stem violence in their beloved city. LISC is a proud national partner of the PBS film, helping to spark attention to its life-and-death message: through collaboration between neighbors and law enforcement, and imperative investment in underserved communities, we can make communities safer and better. It’s the very work LISC supports across the country.
In the opening scene of Charm City, an extraordinary documentary airing this month on PBS, we meet Clayton Guyton, aka Mr. C, a neighborhood elder and de facto peacekeeper, sitting on his stoop in East Baltimore, discussing a shooting that has just taken place nearby. “Four people got shot,” he tells his companions, as police lights flash in the darkness behind him. It’s clear that he’s had conversations like this many times before.
Among dozens of powerful moments in this unvarnished portrait of violent crime, poverty and the remarkable, everyday residents and police working to tackle those issues in Baltimore—I was struck by Mr. C’s expression in that opening scene. His eyes are bloodshot and exhausted, but resolute. It’s a look I’ve seen before, on the faces of some of our community and law enforcement partners: they are tired and broken-hearted by things they’ve witnessed, but they are not giving up. They know they can make a difference. As Mr. C., a former corrections officer who now runs a community center on Rose Street, says of the shooters, “They ain’t stopping us.” It’s time to get to work, and he and the other men head out into the night, to pick up garbage on their neighborhood clean-up route.
All the people we encounter in Charm City—from Mr. C. and Alex Long, a youth organizer and outreach worker, to Brandon M. Scott, a young Baltimore city councilmember and Monique Brown, a police officer—share the same goal: To save and enrich lives, to reduce crime, to help make their city a good place to live and work.
They also all recognize that the problems in their neighborhoods are systemic and interconnected. Joblessness, violence, mass incarceration, underfunded and underperforming schools, disconnected youth and dilapidated housing are just some of the destabilizing factors. They know, too, from years of personal experience, that it takes interconnected solutions, and trust between law enforcement and neighbors, to create change.
Charm City shows several nascent examples of those solutions: Mr. C’s Rose Street Community Center, where local youth can get tutoring, learn violence de-escalation tactics and spend time with adults who have their back. A police-community dialogue organized by Councilmember Scott that gives both sides the chance to learn about and from each other. Alex Long, a Rose Street resident who was incarcerated as a teen, has become a trusted mentor in his neighborhood and a designated “Safe Streets” outreach worker, patrolling the blocks, helping de-escalate conflicts and shoring up a renewed sense of community. In three of the Baltimore neighborhoods where the Safe Streets program was deployed, not a single homicide took place for a year, circa 2015-16, at a time when the city suffered the highest murder rate in its history.
Charm City’s subjects are so much like the many resident leaders and police we’ve teamed up with—people who insist on finding solutions for their communities. And their strategies are emblematic of the very safety and community-building partnerships that LISC has supported since we began targeting crime reduction initiatives in partnership with the Department of Justice nearly 10 years ago. We’ve piloted some of them in Baltimore, in fact.
Beginning in 2012, for example, we worked with people in the McElderry Park neighborhood—government officials, community-based organizations, residents and police—to reduce violent crime through community policing, repairing blighted and abandoned properties and mentoring and prevention programs for youth.
We’re currently collaborating with the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work on a program to bring opportunities to youth and support families in severely under-invested neighborhoods. Promise Heights, the target area for the program, is in the heart of West Baltimore’s Upton/Druid Heights community, the epicenter of the 2015 Baltimore riots following the death of Freddy Gray, the 25-year-old black man killed in police custody.
In New Haven, CT, we support a street outreach program, much like what Alex Long does in the film, where grassroots patrols help residents solve problems and get involved in projects that reduce crime. And in Richmond, VA, we provide technical assistance and funding for the RVA League for Safer Streets, a basketball-plus-education program for young men from Richmond areas with high crime rates. Founded by two formerly incarcerated Richmonders who have experience and insight derived from their decades behind bars, the League is dedicated to keeping people out of prison and helping those who are returning become successful members of their communities.
We are especially proud to be acting as a national sponsor for ITVS, a leading documentary film funder and distributor, to promote and inspire conversations around Charm City. Members of our Safety & Justice team and other LISC staff will be taking part in panels and discussions at regional screenings of the movie, including in New Haven and Washington, D.C. LISC Kansas City staff recently spoke at presentation of the film in their city. If you are interested in organizing a community screening in your area, and would like more information, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. In our line of work, and for anyone living in America today, Charm City is a must-see.
Premieres April 22, 2019 at 10PM. Tune into your local PBS station or stream online.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mona Mangat, Vice President, Safety & Justice Initiatives
Mona directs safety and justice initiatives at LISC, having served in a leadership role on the national safety team since 2006. Her experience includes providing technical assistance to police departments and community economic development organizations in topics such as crime problem-solving, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) and building high impact community-law enforcement alliances. Mona managed LISC’s competitive national community-police partnership awards program sponsored by MetLife Foundation for over a decade.